U.S. convicts "Prince of Marbella" of arms deal

NEW YORK Thu Nov 20, 2008 1:17pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. federal jury convicted a Syrian arms dealer and a co-defendant on Thursday of conspiring to sell $1 million in weapons to Colombian rebels who intended to use them against Americans.

Monzer al-Kassar, 62, a longtime resident of Spain known as the "Prince of Marbella" for his lifestyle in the glitzy seaside town, was described by prosecutors as one of the world's most prolific arms dealers.

He was on trial with Felipe Moreno Godoy, a Chilean, 59. Both were convicted on a host of charges including arms sales, conspiracy to kill U.S. officials, conspiracy to aid a terrorist organization and money-laundering.

Both defendants planned to appeal, a defense lawyer said. They are scheduled to be sentenced on February 18.

Defense lawyers said Kassar was a legitimate arms merchant who, when dealing with U.S. informants, was instead spying on them for Spanish intelligence.

Prosecutors called that a fabrication and said Kassar was motivated by greed in conspiring to sell missiles to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the U.S. government has designated as a foreign terrorist organization.

The prosecution case was based largely on evidence gathered by two undercover operatives who posed as FARC arms buyers and videotaped negotiations in Spain with Kassar and Moreno. The deal would have included assault and sniper rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers.

Prosecutors showed documents found in Kassar's briefcase when he was arrested at Madrid airport in June 2007. He was extradited to the United States this year after Spain received assurances from U.S. authorities he would face neither the death penalty nor a life sentence without chance of parole.

The U.S. Embassy in Madrid said Kassar has been selling weapons since the 1970s to the Palestinian Liberation Front and clients in Nicaragua, Bosnia, Croatia, Iran, Iraq and Somalia.

In 1995, Kassar was tried and acquitted of supplying arms that were used in the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship of the coast of Egypt. That resulted in the death of a wheelchair-bound Jewish-American, Leon Klinghoffer.

Klinghoffer's two daughters, who sat through Kassar's trial in New York, told reporters they felt vindicated by the verdict.

"Even though this case was not about the Achille Lauro, I wanted everyone there to know that my father was in the courtroom," Lisa Klinghoffer said.

(Additional reporting by Grant McCool; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Anthony Boadle)

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